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Evolution and Human BehaviorReview - Evolution and Human Behavior
by John Cartwright
MIT Press, 2000
Review by Daniel R. Wilson, MD, PhD
Nov 30th 2000 (Volume 4, Issue 48)

Under a variety of scholarly designations, the application of Darwinian ideas to human behavior has rapidly advanced in the past few years.  In fact, evolutionary psychology is rather trendy as evident in increasingly frequent popular culture references – these days almost any issue of a major news weekly offers some purported insight as to how evolution has sculpted human relations.  However, much is proposed by indirect inference often in the dire straits of ‘just so stories’.   On the whole, the trend to a more Darwinian weltanschauung is to be welcomed nevertheless especially as evolutionary analyses of human behavior were so long ignored and even suppressed.

So it is that a deluge of books on all manner of evolutionary aspects of humans and their affairs is raining down across the literary and scholarly world.  It is in this general context that John Cartwright1 offers his fine and useful contribution, Evolution and Human Behavior.  It is an entirely synthetic and synoptic work; a rather steadily surveys most (but not all!) the major constituent scientific observations from which is emerging that more complete application of evolutionary theory that Darwin sought in 1859.  Cartwright aimed for ‘an accessible student textbook’ and has hit the target.

The first two sections, ‘Historical Introduction’ and ‘Darwin’s Legacy’, are a concise but substantive history of theories of mind from Darwin on.  This is a truly refreshing contrast to the ahistorical enumeration of bio-behavioral concepts that make up most introductory texts.  Furthermore, it is an even more important antidote to the lamentable tendency of evolutionary psychologists to talk as if little prior to the past generation or so is worth much time and attention – as if Darwin hadn’t envisioned much of the ‘extended phenotype’ or the behavioral phylogenetics of social creatures.  Moreover, Cartwright carries this more pluralistic view throughout the book and, generally, avoids undue partisanship amongst the many curiously competitive contemporary thinkers who at times seem more keen on advancing their own swath the larger project of ‘Darwinising man’.

Then follows section two, somewhat inaptly titled ‘The Selfish Gene’.  This is a creditable summary of solutions to the problems of altruism that so puzzled Darwin and others until – Hamilton, Dawkins, Trivers and all. (with Westermarck shoehorned in here a bit uncomfortably).  This section includes a boilerplate review of some relevant elementary biology that could well have been left to the high school texts.   Then things move smoothly onto sections four and five, ‘Mating Behaviour’ and ‘Sexual Selection’ with a potpourri of game theoretical, ecologic and other models all briefly recapped to show how such theories and principles may influence the mechanisms of human behavior.

Sections six, ‘The Evolution of Brain Size’, and seven, ‘Language and the Modular Mind’, disappoint.  They are, again, study renditions of pertinent material.  However the book here quite simply and inexplicably misses a fantastic opportunity to include a broader integration of much salient neuroscientific and biomedical knowledge (though there is a half page referencing MacLean’s triune research).  Of course, this paucity of genomic and brain science perspective is, as I have mentioned elsewhere2, a problem with almost all evolutionary psychology.  Still, one wonders how a book entitled Human Evolution and Behavior could so completely neglect neurobehavioral genetics and behavioral neurology.  This is clearly an area to be bolstered in a subsequent edition of this otherwise efficiently comprehensive text.

Section eight, ‘Understanding Human Sexual Behavior: Anthropological Approaches’ is tantalizing but ultimately to shallow to carry much weight – in truth just a few pages on anthropology.  Though there is other interesting material to do with germane topics such as dimorphism, ovulation and menstruation, a fuller discussion of studies in human prehistory and across cultures would have been more satisfactory.  A related criticism is the lack of a chapter explicating animal models which cast light on how we think, feel and act in ways that may have enhanced reproductive fitness.  Instead, there are only a few passing remarks on primate dimorphism but next to nothing on so much else of sociobiological interest.  This is in contrast to the following section nine, ‘Human Mate Choice’, with its extensive discussion of empirical research on proximal mechanisms such as symmetry, attractiveness and status.  But then again, as an intended student text, it is an arguable selective advantage to highlight photos of a few movies stars.  Ah well!

Section ten, ‘Conflict within Families and Other Groups’, returns to more intermediate if not ultimate levels of explanation.  It is, like so much else in this book, a clear, efficient and integrative discussion of fairly complex notions.  Some reference to the abundant published material in clinical evolutionary psychology would have added luster to this section.  Section eleven, ‘Atruism, Co-operation & the Foundations of Culture’, is a sound synthetic survey of game mathematical models and empirical researches as well as gene-culture co-evolution.

Section twelve, ‘Epilogue: The Use & Abuse of Evolutionary Theory’, is a well-crafted and quite careful walk through the garden-path of political correctness past and present.  All the usual suspects are lined up for identification, starting with Lamarck, Chambers (the Victorian naturalist, Robert, not Whitaker, the Cold War spy!).

John Cartwright has given us a useful book:  well-written, copiously illustrated with a helpful glossary and adequate if not wholly complete references.  It succeeds in its primary aim to encapsulate topics fundamental to evolutionary psychology at a level appropriate for undergraduates.  It is less valuable to advanced students or scholars. 

In its ‘struggle for scholarly fitness’, this reliable book is likely to engender subsequent revised editions.  If so, its further evolution and adaptation could readily be advanced by incorporation of more population genomics, neurobehavioral genetics and biomedical neuroscience.   But for all that, I wish it had been in print when I was an undergraduate!

 

 

1 Cartwright, J.  Human Behavior and Evolution, Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2000.

2  Wilson, DR.   Evolutionary epidemiology and manic-depression.  Br J Med Psych 1998; V71, 4/12: 375-396.

 

 

 

Dr. Wilson is Professor and Chairman of Psychiatry and Professor of Anthropology at Creighton University.  He has a BA in Anthropology from Yale, an MD from Iowa, ABPN-Psychiatry via Harvard Medical School and a PhD in Biological Anthropology from Cambridge.  Dr. Wilson has authored over a hundred articles, chapters and books mostly in psychopathology and evolutionary epidemiology.  He maintains active research in neuropsychiatry as well as on-going field studies to ascertain base rates of psychopathology among indigenous people of South America.


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